Iowa, a state with gently rolling green hills in the Midwest region of the United States, was admitted to the Union in 1846 as the 29th state. The people are very friendly, enjoy good food, and enjoy being in the political hotbed every four years when the Caucuses roll through the state. The state is quite rural, with plenty of fields of corn and soybeans and hog farms, although some cities, namely Des Moines, have a strong metropolitan feel.
|Eastern Iowa (Dubuque, Linn, Jones, Jackson, Iowa, Johnson, Cedar, Clinton, Scott, Muscatine, and Washington counties)|
The most heavily populated and developed area of Iowa outside of the state capitol, this region is home to the University of Iowa.
|Central Iowa (Carroll, Greene, Boone, Story, Marshall, Tama, Guthrie, Dallas, Polk, Jasper, Poweshiek, Madison, Warren, and Marion counties)|
|Western Iowa (Lyon, Osceola, Dickinson, Emmet, Sioux, O'Brien, Clay, Palo Alto, Plymouth, Cherokee, Buena Vista, Pocahontas, Woodbury, Ida, Sac, Monona, and Crawford counties)|
|Southwest Iowa (Harrison, Shelby, Audubon, Pottawattamie, Cass, Adair, Mills, Montgomery, Adams, Fremont, Page, and Taylor counties)|
|North Central Iowa (Kossuth, Winnebago, Worth, Mitchell, Hancock, Cerro Gordo, Floyd, Humboldt, Wright, Franklin, Butler, Calhoun, Webster, Hamilton, Hardin, and Grundy counties)|
|Northeast Iowa (Howard, Winneshiek, Allamakee, Chickasaw, Fayette, Clayton, Bremer, Black Hawk, Buchanan, Delaware, and Benton counties)|
|Southeast Iowa (Louisa, Des Moines, Lee, Henry, Van Buren, and Jefferson counties)|
|South Central Iowa (Mahaska, Keokuk, Union, Clarke, Lucas, Monroe, Wapello, Ringgold, Decatur, Wayne, Appanoose, and Davis counties)|
- 1 Des Moines – state capital and largest city, considered to be the "insurance capital of the U.S." and offers so much of it, served alongside your steak de burgo (a favorite local food, available at many steakhouses)
- 2 Ames – A half hour's drive north of Des Moines, home of Iowa State University
- 3 Cedar Falls – home of University of Northern Iowa and on the western edge of the larger Waterloo
- 4 Cedar Rapids – Iowa's second-largest city
- 5 Council Bluffs – suburb of Omaha, Nebraska, along the Missouri River known for its numerous casinos.
- 6 Dubuque – a hilly city along the Mississippi River
- 7 Iowa City – home of University of Iowa, just south of Cedar Rapids
- 8 Quad Cities – Davenport and Bettendorf are in eastern Iowa, and the other three (yes, there are five cities in the Quad Cities) are in Northern Illinois (Iowa can't have it all)
- 9 Sioux City – northwest city along Missouri River bank, where Palmer Candies pumps out Twin Bings cherry candy
- 1 Amana Colonies – founded as a German religious community
- 2 Effigy Mounds National Monument
- 3 Iowa Great Lakes (Okoboji) – serves as a popular in-state getaway, for boating, beaching, theme parks and more
- 4 Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail – Between May 1804 and September 1806, 32 men, one woman, and a baby traveled from the plains of the Midwest to the shores of the Pacific Ocean. They called themselves the Corps of Discovery
Purchased from France as part of the Louisiana purchase, Iowa officially became a state in 1846. True to form in the Midwest, settlers tended to gravitate toward rivers and established their communities there. Today, many of the State's major cities are based on rivers including Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, Davenport, Dubuque, Sioux City and Council Bluffs. Agriculture used to be the primary industry of the state, but the ongoing urbanization of the state's population has resulted in a diverse mixture of industries. Agriculture, though significantly diminished as the economic driver of the state, is still a major economic component.
Though Iowa has long been considered a rural state, it has a surprisingly rich cultural scene. The University of Iowa in Iowa City is home to a number of major programs including the Iowa Writers Workshop, a program that has trained a number of America's great modern writers. Iowa State University in Ames is also a major driver of culture in the central part of the State. Prominent liberal arts colleges also dot the state, including Grinnell, Cornell, Coe and Luther.
Like the rest of the Midwest, Iowa has a four-season climate. Winter weather gives its first hints of what's to come around October 1st, when you can expect to see frost on windshields some mornings. What the gardeners call a killing frost – and hay fever sufferers call the best day of the year – usually follows about two weeks later. The afternoons in October can still be warm enough to wear short sleeves outdoors. In the core winter months of December, January, and February, it is typical for the highest temperature to be somewhere around the freezing point. The first good snow usually appears in late November, and it will continue snowing off and on until sometime in March. All together, it's typical to get two to three feet of snow spread out over the winter, with less in the southern parts of the state and more in the northern areas.
The first sign of spring is the mud revealed melting snow, followed by the plum and cherry trees beginning to blossom. It will usually gets up into the low 70s for the first time around April 1st, but you will want to keep at least a jacket, sweatshirt, or other warm clothing through early May, as it's normal for the temperatures to occasionally dip below freezing overnight until past Mother's Day in May. April through July are the wettest months, with some amount of rain on more than a third of the days. Tornadoes are possible any time of year, but most common in spring and summer. From May to September, you will want to have mosquito spray handy if you are going to be outside around dusk.
While it has occasionally snowed and hailed during the summer, that is due to cold temperatures in the upper atmosphere, rather than what it feels like on the ground. Summer afternoons tend to be hot and can be extremely humid. When it's particularly hot and humid, you can sound like a local by turning your complaint into reminder about the benefits: "It's good corn-growing weather". June, July, and August will all see some days in the 90s, but most days, the late afternoon temperature will be in the low 80s, and the overnight temperature will dip into the 60s.
Children start going back to school in the latter part of August, and the state fair in early September marks the turning point in the seasons, when summer is truly over and winter is on its way again.
If you speak English, then you should find Midwestern English quite easy to understand. Locals believe that they have no accent and speak pure, general American. Customer service organizations agree with them and build call centers in the cities; linguists disagree and point out a few oddities of pronunciation and grammar. Soft drinks are usually called pop. Unless you're talking about the menu, beans means soybeans, and you'll see them in almost half the fields. If you ask your buddy to come with to the next town, he may say that he needs to think on it a bit before he decides. A roast is an outdoor party, and if you're vegetarian, you should ask whether it's a corn roast or a hog roast before you decide whether to join. Every four years, the caucus happens (and happens and happens), and its uniqueness means that no further description is used.
The biggest airport in Iowa is centrally located, in the state capital of Des Moines (DSM IATA). The second most popular is the Eastern Iowa Airport (CID IATA) in Cedar Rapids, on the east side of the state. There are also very small airports in Dubuque (DBQ IATA), Sioux City (SUX IATA), Waterloo (ALO IATA), Burlington (BRL IATA), Fort Dodge (FOD IATA), and Mason City (MCW IATA) that support scheduled passenger service.
For travellers flying their own planes, there are dozens of general aviation airports, and hundreds of flying strips.
Most people enter (and leave) Iowa via I-80 if coming from the east or west, or I-35 from the north or south. Both interstates are easy to navigate, as are many Midwestern states. A couple of 50-mile-long straight sections on the former has done more to perpetuate the stereotype that Iowa is nearly flat and empty than just about anything else, but the perception is not true: Iowa wouldn't even make a top-10 list for flattest states. Its neighbor Illinois would, however; Illinois is flatter than any US state except Florida and Louisiana.
If you want to see the true face of the state, get off the interstate, ignore the fast-food signs, and find one of the small towns that make the Midwest so charming. Driving US Highway 6 across the state takes about 5.5 hours; it runs parallel to I-80 through most of the state but lets you see more variety. For a north–south trip, consider US Highway 69 through Des Moines or US Highway 218 through Cedar Rapids and Waterloo. State maps are available free of charge at state "Welcome Centers" and rest areas. State maps list such points of interest as Cedar Rock, a rare Usonian example of Frank Lloyd Wright architecture, and scenic routes, often found on county roads.
- Amtrak (Amtrak code OSC) (I-35 S to US-34 E exit, turn right at S Ridge Rd), toll-free: +1 800-USA-RAIL (872-7245). Amtrak station, in Osceola at Main and E Clay Sts, is 45 mi (72 km) due south of Des Moines via I-35. In the town there are not many traveler services, unless you count the casino. Greyhound runs through Osceola.
Amtrak's Chicago/Denver/San Francisco route also makes stops at Omaha (just across the Missouri River from Council Bluffs), Creston (south-central Iowa), and Ottumwa, Mt. Pleasant and Burlington in southeastern Iowa. The Chicago-Los Angeles route stops in Fort Madison as it clips across the southeasternmost corner of the state in route to Kansas City.
- The American Discovery Trail connects Iowa with Nebraska, Illinois, and both coasts.
Most people get around Iowa by car. The roads in much of Iowa – like much of the Midwest – are laid out on a grid pattern. Drive on any of the state's outer highways, and you will quickly come to realize that there is an intersection at nearly every mile. This makes figuring out where you are, and getting from there to where you need to be, a relatively simple undertaking. It also means that if you ask for directions, people are likely to give directions according to the points on a compass. If someone says to go one mile east and three miles north, and you're feeling all turned around, don't be shy about asking which way you need to go.
Travelers unaccustomed to ice and snow may have trouble driving in Iowa winters. Plan ahead if you need to travel during the colder parts of the year. Special snow tires or chains aren't usually needed, but you do need to know how to drive in winter conditions. Check the weather reports and road conditions well in advance, and give yourself plenty of time. If the snowplows have been called out, you should wait until they've cleared the roads. Drive slower than normal, and triple the amount of space you leave between your vehicle and the one in front of you. Turn and brake gently, and be ready to cope with an unseen patch of ice, especially on and around bridges.
Major routes in the state include:
- Interstate 80: The state's major east-west interstate, it services major cities including Davenport, Bettendorf, Iowa City, Des Moines and Council Bluffs. Most other major cities including Cedar Rapids and Ames are within a half hour drive of I-80.
- Interstate 35: The state's major north-south interstate, it services Ames and Des Moines as well as regional cities such as Mason City and Indianola.
- Interstate 380: A branch of Interstate 80, the route connects Iowa City to Waterloo via Cedar Rapids. The route terminates at US 20.
- Interstate 29: Connecting Kansas City to Omaha and Sioux Falls, the route mostly traces the Iowa–Nebraska border and connects Council Bluffs to Sioux City.
- US 30: America's first transcontinental highway, US 30 runs through the center of Iowa connecting Clinton, Cedar Rapids, Marshalltown, Ames, Denison and Missouri Valley.
- US 20: Another major transcontinental highway, US 20 enters Iowa at Dubuque and services Waterloo, Fort Dodge and Sioux City.
- US 151: Originating in the Amana Colonies, this route heads northeast connecting Cedar Rapids and Dubuque.
Information on transit can be found here.
- 50 Most Significant Iowa Buildings of the 20th Century, Iowa. As published on the Iowa Public Television website. A complete list of the 50 buildings selected by the AIA-Iowa Chapter as the most significant Iowa buildings of the 20th century.
Points of interest
- Field of Dreams, Dyersville. Various Websites. Considered one of baseball's most-treasured landmarks. The field is the same used in the film, Field of Dreams, nominated by the Academy Awards for Best Film of the Year of 1989. The film, based upon W.P. Kinsella's book Shoeless Joe, starred Kevin Costner and James Earl Jones. The field is owned by two families amid much controversy. No admission is charged to visit the field. Various events, including baseball and softball games, take place on the field at various times during the year.
- RAGBRAI (the Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa). Cycling enthusiasts from across the nation descend on the state for this road bike event. Riders start in a different town each year. They take seven days to cross the state, dipping their wheels in the Missouri River on one side and the Mississippi River on the other.
- State Fair. Des Moines is host to the nation's largest state fair, renowned for its music and cuisine. Many call it the best opportunity to get all that Iowa has to offer.
- Living History Farms, Urbandale (Exit 125 off of I-80), ☏ +1 515 278-5286. An outdoor interactive agricultural museum, Living History Farms gives people of all ages a new way of enjoying history. It is open to the public from May to October and has special events throughout the year. Historical interpreters explain and demonstrate the lifestyles of the 1700s Ioway Indians, the 1850 pioneers, the townspeople of 1875, and 1900 farmers.
- Des Moines Art Festival. The Des Moines Arts Festival traces its beginnings to 1958, and takes place in the heart of Des Moines surrounding the John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park in Western Gateway Park. Each year, the Festival features visual art, live music, performing arts and activities, along with the Interrobang Film Festival.
Licensed hunters can shoot deer, ring-necked pheasant and other legal game during the designated seasons. Adults and teens age 16 and up are required to have a fishing license. Trapping is allowed, mostly in November, December, and January, and requires a furharvester license. Licenses are limited, so it can be a good idea to apply in advance.
Birders will find majestic bald eagles in some areas, as well as many backyard birds, including cardinals, black-capped chickadees, American goldfinches, blue jays, and more.
Iowans consider themselves the "breadbasket of the world", which is reflected in their cuisine. Get ready for pork chops and pork BBQ, ham steaks and baked potatoes, sweet corn on the cob and green beans, and more just-plain-good Midwestern cooking than you can possibly eat in a lifetime. Most rural towns have a fast-food restaurant or two if you're in a hurry, but the best places are the ones which take just a little more time, possibly giving you a chance to chat with friendly locals over a pie or coffee. Early morning in a rural diner might find you in the company of a bunch of farmers! A few things to try:
- Maid-Rite burgers, also called "tavern" or "loose meat" burgers, are similar to hamburgers, but the beef is cooked in very small pieces, without forming a patty.
- Pork tenderloin sandwiches tend to be breaded, deep-fried, and generously sized.
- The hot roast beef sandwich is available in nearly every diner. This homestyle dish is a slice of white sandwich bread, a slice of roast beef, and a scoop of mashed potatoes, all of which is then drowned in thin brown gravy.
- Taco pizza was invented in Bettendorf, but is available across the state now. One of the most popular sources of pizza are the convenience stores. Iowans are divided between Casey's and Kum and Go. In many smaller towns, these are the only places to buy hot pizza. You can call ahead to have a freshly baked pizza waiting for you, or buy it by the slice while you're fueling up.
- Pies are what's for dessert. It's not unusual for larger restaurants to offer a dozen varieties of pie. Try the rhubarb pie when it's available.
Towns with strong ethnic identities sometimes have restaurants devoted to a particular country's cuisine. You will find Dutch food in Pella, German food in the Amana Colonies, Czech kolaches in Cedar Rapids, Norwegian food in Decorah, and Danish food in several small towns. Iowa has a substantial Latino population, and there are many family-run Latino restaurants which generally have quite good food.
If you are having dinner in someone's home, then you may find yourself eating fried or barbecued chicken, ham balls (similar to meat balls, but made with ground pork and often glazed with a sweet sauce), spaghetti with tomato sauce, or various casseroles. At a party, you may find a bowl of salty Chex mix. A potluck at church or in the veteran's hall might seem incomplete without a gently simmering crockpot of beanie weenies (hot dogs and baked beans) and a dessert made from Jell-O tucked in between the cakes and pies.
Before Prohibition, Iowa had a healthy wine industry, which is growing once again. There are vineyards scattered throughout the state, each producing their own wines.
Des Moines boasts the state's largest number and widest variety of establishments for all age groups, but the bustling college towns of Cedar Falls, Ames and Iowa City provide the most avid nightlife in the state for (mostly) younger crowds (older crowds are more popular on game days, particularly in the fall during football season). Scores of young adults pack local bars and clubs Thursday through Saturday nights.
Alcohol purchases cease at 2 AM in both bars and stores. There are no separate outlets for different types of alcohol purchases, and all alcohol content in beer is the same no matter where it is purchased. Alcohol is available seven days a week and the state does not have any "dry" counties.
Iowa is home to a thriving craft beer scene, with noteworthy breweries including Millstream Brewing Company, based in the Amana Colonies, and Okoboji Brewing Company[dead link] from the Iowa Great Lakes area. Toppling Goliath Brewing Co., located in Decorah, is a world-renowned microbrewery that has eight different brews listed in the Beer Advocate Top 250 Beers List, including the number one beer of all time. Other notable microbreweries include the Confluence Brewing Company and Exile Brewing Company in Des Moines, Backpocket Brewing in Coralville, SingleSpeed Brewing in Cedar Falls, and more than 80 others scattered throughout the state.
The rural parts of Iowa are quite safe, with many people not bothering to lock their car doors. A traveler should take a more common-sense approach when visiting more populous areas, such as Council Bluffs, Davenport, or Des Moines, as these areas have crime rates resembling those of typical mid-sized American cities.
For the most part, a traveler will find that most Iowans are friendly, warm, and happy to help if you have trouble.
Iowa experiences all four seasons in abundance: winter, mud, road construction, and football. Football season produces few travel-related problems beyond a weekly traffic jam near each football field and the occasional remark – usually made by people who are "from away" – that this sport shouldn't be called football, since it involves almost no ball and even less foot. The first hard frost arrives during football season, which makes things a bit slippery underfoot early in the morning, but it also releases thousands of people from the months-long grip of hay fever. However, the other three seasons can present travelers with severe weather and unexpected changes in conditions.
Thunderstorms are common. Thunderstorms are possible at any time, as long as the temperature is above the freezing point.
Flooding can block roads. This is mainly a problem in the spring, when the combination of melting snow and additional rain saturates the ground and fills the rivers.
Iowa resides in the unofficial "tornado alley" and sees about 50 tornadoes each year. The tornadoes are mostly considered weak (which is still very strong, by everyday standards for wind) and typically damage some trees, break a few windows, and blow over signs and other things. They primarily appear in the southwest edge of the state, but tornadoes can be found occasionally elsewhere in the state, especially in spring and summer months.
With that in mind, pay attention to weather conditions and frequently update yourself via television or radio of any potential severe weather threats while traveling to or through the state. Conditions can change rapidly, and you do not want to find yourself inadvertently in the path of a dangerous storm.
For more information on this issue, read the Tornado safety page.
While perhaps neither as cold nor as windy as the Dakotas, Iowa winters can still be brutal. Frequent heavy snow storms are possible throughout the winter and even occasionally into April. Ice storms and freezing rain can make roads extremely treacherous. Most major highways are well maintained, but driving on country roads in the wake of a winter storm can be nerve-racking to say the least. If you choose to travel in winter, keep yourself informed about local weather and road conditions through television, radio, and/or the Iowa DOT website.
Most heavy snow storms in Iowa aren't quite windy enough to qualify as blizzards, but the best advice for traveling during these storms is the same: avoid leaving your home, hotel, or other building, if at all possible. If you do go out, take extra clothes or blankets, bottled water, a cell phone, and a shovel in your vehicle. If you find yourself stranded, stay with your car, bundle up, and wait for help to arrive. Low visibility makes it easy to get turned around and lost if you set out on your own, and dangerous wind chill can cause a person to freeze very quickly.
Historically, Iowa has been a politically varied state, known for liberal and conservative politicians alike. It is also an unusually political state, owing in large part to its early role in the presidential nomination process. While Iowans tend to welcome political discussion more than most, their usual friendliness may at times give way to more hostile responses, especially around the time of the Iowa caucus, which happens in January or early February, about ten months before the quadrennial presidential election. Every four years, Iowans are subjected to every U.S. presidential candidate parading the state, hosting town forums and debates, and soliciting their votes, for a much longer time than the rest of the states are forced to withstand. Feel free to ask Iowans about their view of the presidential caucus, and don't hesitate to offer your own opinion about political matters, but be respectful and don't take it personally if they don't want to discuss politics due to "caucus weariness".
Iowa is surrounded by 6 states.
- Illinois – America's crossroads and home of Chicago, lies across Iowa's eastern border.
- Minnesota – Known for cold winters and its 10,000 lakes, Iowa's northern neighbor is an ideal destination for wilderness enthusiasts and shoppers destined for the Twin Cities and Mall of America.
- Missouri – The state's southern neighbor is home to St. Louis, the Gateway to the West.
- Nebraska – Iowa's western neighbor has a rich agricultural heritage, offering visitors a glimpse into America's heartland. Omaha, one of the largest cities in the Midwest, is a 2-hr drive from Des Moines.
- South Dakota – Home to such natural and cultural wonders as Badlands National Park, Wind Cave National Park and Mount Rushmore, Iowa's neighbor to the northwest offers a surprising amount for travelers to see and do.
- Wisconsin – "America's Dairyland" borders Iowa to the northeast, and offers several lakes and Milwaukee for fun. Nearly the entire eastern border of Wisconsin is surrounded by two of the Great Lakes.